James Wickersham

James Wickersham portrait

James Wickersham, born August 24, 1857 near Patoka, Illinois, moved in 1883 with his wife, Deborah, to Tacoma, Washington Territory. There he served as county probate judge and Tacoma city attorney and, in 1898, was elected to the Washington Territorial House of Representatives.

When the 65th Congress passed the Civil Code of Alaska in 1900, the second and third judicial districts were created for the northern portion of Alaska, and President McKinley appointed James Wickersham district judge for the Third Judicial District, headquartered at Eagle City. In June of 1900, Wickersham was sworn in, becoming the first judge to sit in the Interior of Alaska.

The new district covered some 300,000 square miles; it had no roads, no public buildings, and almost no U.S. currency. The district court and its officials were the only civilian government, besides town functionaries, in the whole of the Interior. In addition to traveling his circuit, the district judge was expected to procure land and materials to construct his own courthouse and jails. It was fortunate that his duties also included the collection of mercantile and saloon license fees, for Congress had provided no other funds for the construction and operation of the court.

The circuit was covered by boat in summer, dogsled in winter. When claim-jumping disputes at Rampart required the attention of the court in 1901, Wickersham traveled from Eagle City to preside, a round-trip journey of over 1,000 miles of dog mushing, made in 45 days, including six days of court. The following summer he traveled to Unalaska in the Aleutians to try the Hardy murder case; returning to Nome, he presided over the Second Judicial District, temporarily without a judge after the Noyes McKenzie scandal.

In the spring of 1903, following Felix Pedro's strike in the Tanana Valley and the ensuing stampede, Judge Wickersham loaded the court records into a dogsled and moved his headquarters to the new population center, Fairbanks, a collection of tents and a few log cabins.

Wickersham had great appreciation for the beauty and resources of the Tanana Valley, frequently citing its agricultural potential. He found time to enjoy hunting and hiking, stopping at Native encampments to hear their history and learn their mores and place names. In the summer of 1903 he led the first attempt to climb Mt. McKinley, taking directions from Olyman Cheah of the Tena band of Indians.

Wickersham resigned as district judge in 1908, and was elected as Alaska's delegate to Congress. He served until 1920, and was re-elected in 1930. He secured the passage of the Organic Act of 1912 granting Alaska territorial status. He introduced the Alaska Railroad Bill, and the legislation to establish McKinley Park, and was responsible for the creation of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, later to become the University of Alaska, In 1916, he introduced the first Alaska Statehood Bill.

Indian Council

Frequently at the center of controversy, Wickersham exerted a greater influence on events during the formative years of the Alaskan Territory than any other individual. He was the author of many articles about Alaska, on subjects ranging from the salmon industry to Alaska's need for self government. He compiled the first edition of the Alaska Reports, a record of all decisions of the Alaska courts, and, after retiring from Congress at age 76, he assembled the first index of all material published about Alaska, the Wickersham Bibliography.

Wickersham died in Juneau on October 23, 1939. In 1949, the Alaska Territorial Legislature paid tribute to his memory by designating his birthday, August 24, Wickersham Day.

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